Lorna O'Mahony

MA Humanitarianism and Conflict Response. Graduated 2011.

What inspired you to study this course? 

When researching courses to undertake in 2010 for my postgrad, I came across the newly formed HCRI department and master’s they were offering.

The course description for the MA in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response immediately drew my attention, and I was excited at the prospect of studying such interesting and varied topics with what seemed to have translatable skills into the Humanitarian Sector. 

While I knew little about the humanitarian sector in 2010, as I made my postgrad applications, I knew that this was the course which would assist me in carving out my career as a professional in the humanitarian sector.

How has your career progressed since completing your course?

My career has taken some twists and turns… upon graduating from the MA in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response in 2011, I thought many more doors within the sector would have been opened for me. However, the economic climate of 2011 meant that such positions where out of reach at that stage for me, and I found myself working in the private sector – the cost of keeping a roof over one’s self being alarmingly high in London!

I accepted that I would have to work in the private sector, develop and gain new transferable skills and then make the move into the humanitarian sector – and that is exactly what I did!

In September of 2014, I joined Save the Children UK as a Deployment Officer, just in time for the complicated Ebola Response. Joining SCUK was a great move, in that it allowed me to learn and develop, opened up opportunities for further trainings, and set me up for my first mission with MSF.

Eager to move from a HQ position in London, to the field I took the plunge and in early 2016, joined MSF OCA as an Admin/HR/Finance Manager in Am Timan, Chad. Chad was an incredibly rewarding and challenging mission and confirmed that the humanitarian sector was where I wanted to be.

In late 2016, I set off on my second mission: Tikrit, Iraq with Terre des hommes as finance and HR manager. This was an emergency context, with a whole new set of rules. And I loved it!

In late October of 2017, I set off once again with Terre des hommes, this time for Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. I remained the Finance and HR Manger, now in a first phase L3 emergency, responding to the Rohingya refugee influx. This was an incredibly challenging mission, in all regards, with a high and fast learning curve.

In Nov 2018 I started my current role, as Emergency Officer, in the Humanitarian Team at the MENA Regional Office with UNICEF.  

How have the skills and knowledge gained on the course helped you in your current role/career progression? 

The MA gave me a more holistic overview of the humanitarian sector, with modules on the history and case studies of specific responses having in particular proved to be relevant and useful in day to day work.

What is your current role and what do you enjoy the most about it? 

I am currently the Emergency Officer with the Humanitarian Team, covering MENA in the regional office for UNICEF, based in Amman, Jordan. My role involves supporting the Country Offices directly, managing the Winterization Response, humanitarian focal point for Children on the Move and supporting on emergency preparedness and response.

Moving to the UN from INGOs, is a big learning curve, but I’m enjoying having a bird’s eye view of what is going on across the 16 countries which we support and being abreast of developments and challenges, the strategic decision making and advocacy which takes place often outside of the country  and developments within the humanitarian sector which one often doesn’t have time and or energy to focus on while in an emergency response.

Do you have any advice for people wanting to follow in your footsteps? 

Learn how to use and master Excel – it doesn’t matter what role/technical area you are interested in, Excel rules them all!

Cash in emergencies, data management/GIS, and roles related to protection, all remain difficult to recruit for, yet are key functions in all emergency responses.

Know what you want in this sector – it is a vast and changing beast and it is easy to find yourself in a role which you initially didn’t anticipate falling into. Be strategic in your choices, of both the organisation you work for, and the roles you accept. While you may be perfectly happy with the idea of living abroad now, in years to come the transition back to your home country may not be so easy. Jobs in HQ are very limited with high competition, and not all skills and experiences will be easy to translate to the private sector.

While the humanitarian sector is challenging and fascinating … it is far from glamourous, it remains greatly frustrating, and can be incredibly lonely and isolating. Learn to know your limits, know that it is ok to say no, and that your health and wellbeing should always remain your first priority.

Know that a career abroad in the humanitarian sector, will likely mean missed weddings and funerals, holidays spent in the field, and potentially a whole host of challenging questions from not so understanding family members and friends!

And always remember: the humanitarian sector is incredibly small, so the art of biting one’s tongue is essential. That difficult team mate you gladly saw the back of a few months ago… is very likely to show up in the next emergency. Everyone knows everyone!

What did you enjoy most about HCRI?

The HCRI didn’t attempt to put the humanitarian sector on a pedestal, nor did it try to rip it apart – it sought to understand it better, analyse its weaknesses and teach a future generation of practitioners how to critically think through problems, and avoid repeating mistakes of yore.

What advice would you give someone considering undertaking a Master’s at HCRI?

The MA alone, with no prior work experience in the sector, will not be sufficient to secure you a job.

It can be a very frustrating search for the coveted first job in the humanitarian sector, with a very limited amount of roles available for junior expat positions. That said, next to all job openings require a master’s as a minimum level of education, so an MA at HCRI will definitely tick that box.